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Science: both creepy and wonderful

Y’all know I love a good murder. Well, here’s a weird one. Today in Winchester Crown Court, Italian Danilo Restivo was sentenced to never-ever getting out of prison, which is pretty unusual for here. Let’s see if I can’t unpack this and tell it right way around.

Danilo Restivo has a hair fetish. As a result of various Crime Watch type programs, 28 women in Italy and an unspecified number in England positively identified Restivo as the man who had come up behind them in a public place and hacked the bottom few inches of their hair off. Apparently without ever being nabbed for it.

In 2002, while Restivo was living in Bournemouth, he murdered his neighbor across the hall, 48 year old Heather Barnetts. He bludgeoned, stabbed and mutilated the hell out of her. In her right hand, he put a lock of somebody else’s hair. In her left hand, he put a lock of her own hair. When her children, 11 and 14, came home from school and found her body, he came across the hall to comfort them. Nice touch.

It took them eight years to accumulate enough evidence to arrest him. Shortly before he was charged, it occurred to Italian authorities that a friend of Restivo’s had disappeared seventeen years ago on the way to meet him at a church in Potenza.

Yep, sure enough, there was sixteen-year-old Elisa Claps’ mummified body in the loft of the church (that’s sixteen years alive, seventeen dessicating in the attic). Exactly like Barnett — bludgeoned and mutilated, pants at half mast, bra cut away, somebody else’s hair in her hand. He’s headed to Italy to stand trial for that one.

A strange enough murder case on its own, but here’s what made it post-worthy:

Five years after Ms Barnett’s death, in 2007, a scientific breakthrough gave the inquiry hope.

Dr Stuart Black, of the University of Reading, undertook chemical and isotope analysis of the hair strands, which represented nine months’ growth.

The results revealed the owner was a UK resident who had visited eastern Spain, between Valencia and Almeria, or the Marseille to Perpignan area of southern France, for up to six days, some 11 weeks before the hair was cut.

They then went to the urban area of Tampa, Florida, US, for eight days some two to two-and-a-half weeks before the hair was cut, and had changed their diet twice in the previous months.

Despite all that, they never identified the owner of the strand of hair in Ms Barnett’s right hand, but — holy shit, did you know they could get that level of detail from a strand of hair now? I know they’ve identified the country of origin from the bones in several stone age burials around here, also from isotopes, but jeeeeeezus that’s specific.

I’d love to know what isotopes are unique to urban Tampa, and how they get in your hair.


Comment from Can’t hark my cry
Time: July 1, 2011, 12:27 am

Creepy, really. Sure, it’s nice to know that they can do that level of analysis if it will help identify a dead person–but apparently it hasn’t done that. And, um, I’m not sure I’d be real happy about having that kind of analysis done on my hair during my lifetime. It’s. . .invasive.

Comment from J.S.Bridges
Time: July 1, 2011, 2:17 am

Maybe some of those isotopes have something to do with sea-salt, which often contains trace elements that can be pretty geographically-specific. Just a guess…

Could also be some of the other minerals in coastal areas that end up in local food – again, just a guess.

Apparently, hair strands (being a long series of linked dead hair-cells) can carry a record of what has been ingested or otherwise absorbed by the body growing the hair for a long time back. The last time I had a job-applicant drug test, it was through collection of a hair sample – and I had to list any from a prepared list of prescription drugs I was taking on a current basis, as an exclusionary measure.

Comment from Stark Dickflüssig
Time: July 1, 2011, 4:40 am

It’s a good thing there aren’t a bunch of massive computer databases out there simply oozing with analytic power that could potentially form a precise map of every single place you’ve been for your entire life based on casually collected information.

Comment from Mark Matis
Time: July 1, 2011, 1:51 pm

You might want to google “tesilying”. It is a fairly good descriptor for a lot of claims such as this.

Given KNOWN samples of DNA (where the providers of the samples ABSOLUTELY KNOW the source, and whether it is from the “suspect” or not), results of DNA analysis are abysmal. And almost ALWAYS err in the direction described by “testilying”.

Of course, that same term is also used to describe much other testimony presented by a prosecutor. Best info I have says even judges and prosecutors estimate that 20% of prosecution testimony is “testilying”. And THAT estimate is by those who most benefit from it and are therefor likely to underestimate the magnitude of same.

Comment from Mrs. Compton
Time: July 1, 2011, 5:33 pm

I hear that’s why Britney Spears cut all her hair off when they were having a custody dispute.

Comment from jdub
Time: July 12, 2011, 2:17 pm

My guess would by gypsum or some other slightly radioactive byproduct of phosphate manufacturing. There’s a HYOOGE phosphate port in Tampa, big railheads and everything, and a bunch of great big gypsum stacks.

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